BLG Leadership Insights Managerial Competence Political Competence

Yahoo takes the Lead

In an industry-defining moment, Marissa Mayer taking on the position as Yahoo’s new CEO marks the youngest CEO to head a Fortune 500 Company, and the first woman to take on the role while expecting.

More than anything, it is the symbolic aspect of this event that makes the story so compelling. Only 37 years old, Mayer has already proven that she has the credentials for the post. Since joining Google in 1994, she has been an engineer, designer, product manager, and key spokesperson for the company. She held key roles in Google Search, Google Images, Google News, Google Maps, Google Books, Google Product Search, Google Toolbar, iGoogle, and Gmail. She also oversaw the layout of Google’s famous search homepage.

Many industry experts were surprised to hear Yahoo’s choice for the young new leader of the company. To couple the news, hours after Yahoo’s public announcement, Mayer sent out the now-famous tweet that she will soon be expecting a baby boy.

Yahoo’s move makes a bold statement in a season when the debate on female leadership and work-life balance has taken center-stage since the publishing of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” A former director of policy planning at the State Department, Slaughter has become a central critic of the inflexible work culture that she claims made juggling high-profile government work along with raising two sons near-impossible, and led her to step down from her government post.

In recent years, Yahoo has been struggling to define itself as a relevant internet directory and search engine. Perhaps then, the company has decided to boldly begin its process of transformation in the spirit of progress.  When Mayer revealed her pregnancy to Yahoo’s Board of Directors last month, she claimed that no one raised any concerns, which implies Yahoo’s evolved thinking. She has also stated that she plans to take no more than a couple of weeks off for maternity leave and will work through it from home.

Many women are analyzing Mayer’s decision in light of the struggle for work-life balance. While some criticize her as a poor role-model for working women, many others hail her for embracing two challenges at once. Mayer herself seems to indicate that she simply prefers to stay in the rhythm of things. In any light, Mayer certainly has her work cut out for her in upcoming months.

Between a company that has many problems to fix and a woman who is supremely intelligent and eager to take on the task, one can hope this leadership transition marks the start of a synergetic relationship, as well as a cultural shift for women executives.

BLG Leadership Insights Creativity Features Ideas

Recycling Plant & Recycling a Plant (Part 1)

Part 1: Recycling Plant

What’s the difference between a recycling plant and recycling a plant? Just to clarify, I am not speaking about agriculture here; in my urban Chicagoland jungle, plant means industry. As is my nature, after moving to a new location, I frenetically bushwhack through metropolitan mulch. I dodge chain restaurants like weeds (aside from Chipotle) and sniff out those hidden flowers that flash the true colors of the city.

My recent harried wanderings have delivered me to this recycling riddle comparing a recycling plant and recycling an (industrial) plant. This first post introduces the recycling plant with my commentary progressing soon on the interwebs.

During my first month blustering around the windy city, I have happened upon various hidden gems of the visual, theatrical, and edible persuasions. All were stunning or enlightening with the exception of an unfortunate goat tostada from La Basura Bodega that seemed to enlighten nothing but my septic system.

A rapid run bike through of my few weeks here would reveal adventures including but not limited to:

1)  Watching the sunrise over Lake Michigan

2)  Doing headstands in my office where I work for the Governor of Illinois

3)  Driving an entirely electric car from Nissan at sunset along the lake

4)  Going out for pizza with the Governor

5)  Assembling a bicycle (with help) and then biking 20 miles roundtrip to Chicago’s Desi corridor for delicious delicacies from Pakistan and India

6)  Hula hooping with 500+ people and professional fire dancers/drummers during a Chicago Full Moon Fire Jam. Click here and here for stunning pictures.

7)  Attending and participating in various art and performance installations around the city

8)  Blasting Kanye/Jay-Z while driving a government car around Illinois to report on hearings

9)  Mingling with glitterati at a wine and hors d’oeuvre reception at the Chicago Yacht Club

10) Exploding over bike handlebars and onto pavement after losing a battle with a curb

Yet this week may take the cake (or flan depending on where you are).  Last Thursday in a nostalgic reminder of the pleasures of elementary school, I took a field trip during work. No need to forge any parental permission slips, though. It was a sanctioned tour of Recycling Services, a private company that exists as the largest recycling service in Chicago.

My tour was a refreshing reminder that matter does not simply disappear after you flush the toilet or drag a trash bag to the curb. My enthusiasm waxed as I watched in graphic, gory detail the process of collecting, sorting, sanitizing, and monetizing our recycling goods. I saw employees meticulously extract waste materials from accelerating conveyor belts and shred materials before compressing and packaging the scraps. The tour culminated with a delicious feast of wine, cheese, shrimp, and gourmet hamburgers after which I was sure to recycle and compost my utensils and food.

It was an impressive display in a city that proactively sustains recycling infrastructure. It even allays conservative or libertarian environmental skepticism because it succeeds through capitalistic, free market participation. This for-profit recycling plant wants to make money. It makes money by increasing recycling. It’s a win-win.

In a recessionary world of big industry that wants to Thank You for Smoking, it’s exciting to see this type of plant thriving. As the owner explained, “Paper is booming in the capital markets”. It’s almost enough to make me print this blog out and recycle the paper. But not quite. Yet how does one go further and actually recycle an industrial plant. Stay tuned…

The adventure continues in Part 2: Recycling a Plant, available by clicking here.

Features Political Competence

Leadership in an Academic Setting

The challenges of 21st century higher education are unprecedented.  In the wake of the recent economic crisis, universities have had to cut programs, eliminate entire academic departments, trim organizational layers, centralize administrative functions, and  move seriously toward distance learning as a core pedagogical technology. In this arena where hard decisions are being made on a daily basis, senior administrators and faculty members need to develop the necessary skills to get things done.

In this context, the core model of what the university is about is sometimes challenged. While it’s easy to maintain that the core values are identifiable and consensual and easy to make a gesture toward excellence in teaching, research, and outreach, the specific priorities that underline each of these are constantly debated.

Now that we’ve moved into a zero-sum age and that hard decisions have to be made, hidden agendas come to the surface. Turf becomes a battleground and a bit of justified paranoia spills into the air. As higher education redefines itself, units within academic settings, universities, colleges, etc. find themselves taking defensive positions.

As we struggle toward cost-reduction, elimination of overlap, and survival in the competitive environment—tensions between the two key components, i.e. administration and faculty, have become more intense than ever before. As leaders put together strategic plans focusing on the future, they face new and complex challenges in implementing those plans. While the writing is on the wall and change is inevitable, the leadership challenge is to know how to move ahead without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

In this context, at all levels of higher education, leadership must show two competencies. First academic leaders need the political competence to make sure they’ve mobilized support for their agenda. Next, they need the managerial competence to make sure that they can go the distance. These competencies are comprised of specific skills that are essential to moving higher education forward.

Leadership training in higher education, as it has been for a long time in the private sector, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

This past year my colleagues and I at Bacharach Leadership Group were given an opportunity by Mary Opperman, Cornell University’s head of Human Resources, to develop Cornell’s high-potentials.

The challenge was clear. How do you take a group of individuals who know their system well and are familiar with the business of higher education and train them in leadership by incorporating their experiences and giving them a systemic appreciation of strategic, tactical, and operational skills to move agendas ahead.

Over a seven-month period, we met nine times as and we focused on a integrated set of skills including the skills for mobilization, the skills for negotiations, the skills for sustaining momentum, and the skills for coaching. The class also took a battery of online courses provided eCornell. The training aimed at assisting Cornell’s high-potentials to become truly entrepreneurial leaders within the university.

In many ways, the higher education setting is more complex than the private sector. In an academic setting, the contingencies are numerous, the constituents varied, the agendas open and hidden, the politics complex, and the management and structure is often unclear, making it a difficult maze for both administrative and academic leaders.

The program we developed for Cornell wasn’t a typical leadership program. It wasn’t based on charisma. It wasn’t based on broad notions of transformational and transactional leadership. It was based on the reality that it’s difficult to get something done in loose organizations like academic institutions. And indeed, if something is to get done, we need leaders that are both capable of getting people on their side and keeping them on their side.

BLG Leadership Insights Proactive Leaders

It’s Never about the “I”

Yesterday, my beloved Red Sox pulled off a great comeback. Down 6-0 after 5 1/2 innings they stormed back for a walk-off 8-7 win. It was quite the victory, especially for a team that has underperformed much of the year. At the same time their arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, have been falling apart lately thanks to internal strife and uninspired play. Both teams are flush with cash, both teams have rabid fan bases, both teams have talent laden rosters. Why then the current divergent paths?

While there are many different reasons, one stands out: a lack of cohesion.  Whether you are Major League Baseball’s #2 most valuable team ($912 Million) or a small business with five employees, having a common vision is one the true keys to success.

In the case of the Yankees and the Red Sox, we can get a feel of how they are heading in two different direction by looking at two very different player quotes.

Following last night’s aforementioned game, the Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia told the Boston Herald:

“The game plan’s winning, that’s it…I tell…all the guys, we’re here to win. It doesn’tmatter if you hit .270, .280 with the personal stuff…It doesn’t matter what you do. It’s what we all do. It’s been fun lately. We’re climbing, man. That’s what we’re going to do. Get on the elevator and go.”

At the same time following their 6th straight loss the Yankees’ Rafael Soriano, who has been sidelined with an arm injury, was asked if it’s been hard watching all the losing from the sidelines, he responded:

“Right now, I don’t think the bullpen (is) the problem. It (is) the hitters. A lot of games we’ve been losing by two or three runs, I wouldn’t be in those games anyway.”

When you have true continuity, when you have a true sense of commonality, it shows. As a pragmatic and proactive leader it is this level of togetherness that must be attained to succeed. You want more “we” and less “I”.  It works in baseball, it works in business and it works in life.

Right about now you might be asking, “Hey Sean, it’s easy to be a positive, team player when things are going great, how about when you’re in the pits?” Glad you asked. When the Red Sox started the 2011 season 0-6, Dustin Pedroia responded to doubters by telling reporters:

“You’re either two feet in now or you’re two feet out. Let us know now because we’re coming.”

Even in the roughest of times, it’s about a shared sense of responsibility and accountability. If this message never wavers, then you have a better chance at success.

As far as the Yankees go, it’s now up to their leader/manager, Joe Girardi, to get his team on the same page. No more “I” and “me” and a lot more “us” and “we”. As simple or as difficult as it might sound, if you can gather your direct reports into a tight, cohesive team, then no amount of six-game losing streaks can keep the whole from succeeding.

BLG Leadership Insights Features Managerial Competence Proactive Leaders

Leaders & Managers: Shared Skills

Leaders and managers have a lot more in common with each other than they know. When we think of leadership we often envision a knight in shining armor galloping across a field of battle on a strong white steed, vanquishing all those who dare oppose him. On the flipside when management comes to mind we are more likely to picture a balding, pudgy 50 year old man in an ill fitting suit, sitting in a dimly lit office combing joylessly through a mountain of quarterly reports. But in reality managers have to know how to ride a horse and leaders have to learn how to hunker down in a small dark room every now and again. So I think it’s time to bridge this semantically chasm. Leaders aren’t gods and managers aren’t drones.

When we think of leaders we think of people who can rally people around them and lead them onto great heights. Leadership is about rallying those around you and getting things done. When we think of managers we think of people who can handle the day to day tasks that allow an organization to move forward. Proper logistics aren’t heroic, but without them no amount of inspired leadership will save your company from the ash-heap of history. Despite the fact there aren’t many “Great Managers of All Time” books floating around out there, their logistical skills are a must for all leaders to learn and if they can, master.

We tend to lionize our leaders and marginalize our managers but the skills of both occur at every level of an organization and neither one can live without the other. There are times when you need a leader and their particular skills. If you know exactly what needs to be done but can’t figure out how to get people to go along with you, then you need a leader not a manager. One of the major challenges of leadership is finding a way to effectively persuading skeptics and potential allies to join your coalition. Managers can get the initial support of people, they can get others to listen and reflect. But only someone with strong leadership skills can get the buy-in necessary to bring people to their side.  This is one of those moments where everyone needs leadership skills to move forward. Managers will never go beyond a certain level without getting a certain level of buy-in from those around them.

On the other hand if you have a core group of adherents who have bought into your agenda it really won’t do much good unless you have the skills to take them across the finish line. Think of your agenda as a plant. In the early stages a plant’s root system is weak and easy to uproot. As its roots take hold they provide the foundation for future growth and stability. You can get build an agenda and get people on your side, but if you don’t have the skills of a manager, the skills of execution and logistics, then you face an uncertain future. Getting people on your side is a big challenge but if you can’t execute, implement and manage change you will come up short.

In the final analysis, we need to remove the imagined boundary between leadership and management. Both leaders and managers need the others particular skill set to get beyond inertia, because in the end no one wants a manager who can’t lead or a leader who can’t manage.